The Fight Ahead on Voting Rights

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Arizona Democrats won a lot of important victories in November, but perhaps none will prove to be more consequential than Katie Hobbs’ victory for Arizona Secretary of State. Hobbs not only joined new Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman in breaking Republicans’ decade-long hold on statewide executive offices, but she is now in charge of the most important political battleground in Arizona: the voting booths.

Across the country, the 2018 midterms and their aftermath have demonstrated how voter suppression has become central to the strategy of the Republican Party. As Jamelle Bouie writes in Slate, Broad, equitable access to the ballot threatens a GOP whose electoral success depends on a narrow (if large) segment of the voting public. Without draconian voting systems in Florida, Mississippi, and Texas, the GOP may not have survived the midterms with its Senate majority; without racial gerrymandering, Republican legislative majorities in North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin may not have withstood the “blue wave” of energy and activity.”

And now, in Arizona, a Republican stronghold has turned into a purple state that many consider to be in play for the 2020 presidential election. We have our first Democratic senator in a generation. Five of the nine US House seats are held by Democrats. Republicans have their slimmest majority (31-29) in the state House of Representatives in 50 years. And the voting system is about to be turned over to a Democrat who ran on ending the combination of malice and incompetence that Michelle Reagan used to suppress minority voters as Secretary of State. And oh yeah, the voting system of the state’s largest county is still overseen by Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes, a Democrat who already has a target on his back from Republicans. Things are going to get real ugly, real fast.

GOP: more racist and misogynistic

After Mitt Romney lost the 2012 election, the Republican Party commissioned a famous “autopsy report” that was stark in its recommendations. In a country that is increasingly diversifying, the report says, a political party cannot survive if it keeps alienating minority groups and younger voters, especially young women. The Republican Party’s key supporters, older white men, are on the decline, demographically speaking, spelling long-term disaster.

Republican leadership took all the wrong lessons from this report. Instead of broadening their appeal, they have instead doubled down by becoming more explicitly racist and misogynistic while working to make sure that voters more likely to vote Democrat, especially racial minorities, have a harder time doing so. They have been supported in this by the 2013 Supreme Court decision Shelby County v. Holder, which gutted a key provision of the landmark Voting Rights Act and opened up a Pandora’s Box of state-level legislation meant to make it harder for Democratic-leaning minority voters to access the ballot box, from limiting early voting to closing polling places in minority communities to strict ID requirements to voting roll purges.

So far, states like Wisconsin and North Carolina have been at the forefront of this Republican assault on voting rights, but it’s coming to Arizona. It started in March 2016, with then-Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell’s decision to shutter dozens of polling places for the presidential preference election, resulting in hours-long lines that made national news. This decision, which disproportionately affected minority communities like South Phoenix, would not have been possible without the Shelby County decision, which ended the practice of requiring jurisdictions with a history of discriminatory practices, including Arizona, to clear voting changes with the Department of Justice.

It also led to Fontes challenging Purcell and winning, putting a Democrat in charge of voting in Arizona’s most populous county. Since his election, Fontes has been an advocate for voting rights, often butting heads with his fellow county recorders and Reagan.

GOP Reagan’s incompetence in election

The drama after this year’s election offers a preview of the battle ahead. On election night, the Republicans were leading in all statewide races and the Associated Press had even called the Secretary of State race for Hobbs’ opponent. But due to the popularity of voting by mail in Arizona, and the fact that vote by mail ballots have to have their signatures hand verified, there were still hundreds of thousands of votes to count, with the majority of course being in Maricopa.

These so-called “late earlies” (ballots that had either been mailed in early or dropped off on Election Day) ended up skewing heavily Democratic and swinging four of the nine statewide races for the Democrat, including Hobbs’ race and the highly-watched US Senate race. In the more than a week it took to count the ballots, Republicans attacked Fontes with various made-up charges intended to give the impression that his counting of the votes was somehow improper.

They focused in particular on his process of “curing” mail-in ballots (calling voters whose signatures did not match to verify they sent in the ballot) after Election Day, which other county recorders did not do, and which Maricopa did not do under Purcell. This inconsistent procedure among the recorders, like many of the battles Fontes has fought, was largely due to Reagan’s incompetence, as she refused to enforce a uniform policy. Republicans filed suit to stop Fontes, but this backfired when the judge ruled that the best solution was for all counties to cure ballots after Election Day.

It’s time to stay vigilant.

This was a rather obvious win, as Fontes knew the law and knew he was following it correctly. But as the Arizona legislature gears up for a new session next month, with Republicans still in charge of both chambers of the governor’s office, the sand might start to shift beneath both Hobbs and Fontes as the legislature and governor move to neuter their powers. The template has already been drawn by Wisconsin and Michigan, where the Republican-controlled legislatures called lame duck sessions to limit the powers of incoming Democratic governors and other state officials. Wisconsin limited early voting while Michigan went after its newly-elected Democratic Secretary of State by taking away his power to oversee campaign finance.

Arizona didn’t need a lame duck session since Republicans held on to the governor’s office, but similar attempts to limit the power of Fontes and Hobbes are coming. The Republican-controlled Maricopa Board of Supervisors is already trying to take away Fontes’ power over elections and we should expect the same from the legislature in relation to Hobbs. Restrictions on early voting, banning the curing of ballots after Election Day, and even more draconian voter ID laws are probably all on the table. It’s time to stay vigilant.